'No Child' waiver refocuses schools on national Common Core standards
By Patrick Cloonan
Published: Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013, 11:39 p.m.
Schools are opening amid changes that may have long-term impact on education in Pennsylvania.
Parents, students and educators will hear more about “Common Core” and less about “Adequate Yearly Progress” as school districts move away from the standards established by Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests.
The U.S. Department of Education granted a waiver to the state for the No Child Left Behind law on Aug. 20, which Gov. Tom Corbett says will put classroom focus on learning rather than testing.
“This waiver allows Pennsylvania to focus on improving schools by directing resources to areas that help students academically succeed,” Corbett said.
A School Performance Profile will combine the assessment tests, the high school Keystone Exams and other measures of achievement.
Corbett said it will allow Pennsylvanians to determine the quality of schools and gauge how students are performing.
“It's about time that Gov. Corbett figured out what parents, students, and educators have known for a long time,” Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman Wythe Keever said. “A single standardized test doesn't tell the whole story of a student's progress.”
The education association is the state's largest for teachers unions. It includes most Mon-Yough districts.
“Pennsylvania was late to the party,” Keever said. “Forty-one other states plus the District of Columbia had already asked for and received No Child Left Behind waivers.”
Adequate Yearly Progress no longer is required, but districts still can be labeled as “low performing.”
“The Opportunity Scholarship program still requires the (state Department of Education) to calculate the combined reading and math assessment scores to determine the schools that fall into the bottom 15 percent,” department spokesman Tim Eller said.
The latest list of the lowest 15 percent based on 2012-13 state assessment testing, released in February, included all McKeesport Area schools except White Oak Elementary, all schools in Clairton City and Duquesne, and the high school and Barrett Elementary in Steel Valley.
Pennsylvania joined 45 other states and the District of Columbia in adopting the Common Core expectations for student performance in English, language arts and mathematics.
“Common Core is a set of academic standards developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers,” Eller said. “Standards focus on the essential concepts, knowledge and skills necessary for students to succeed and are designed to increase student achievement.”
Bob Rothman, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, said the standards help students think critically, solve problems and communicate effectively.
“There is an expectation (that) students need to be able to understand appropriately complex text,” said Rothman, author of “Common Core State Standards 101,” which the alliance says addresses “misimpressions” and “misconceptions” about Common Core.
“One of the misconceptions is that the standards are a curriculum, that they tell teachers how to teach,” Rothman said. “How to teach is up to the teacher.”
Common Core opponent Traci Ramey of Plum said Rothman oversimplifies the issue.
“Common Core does unify standards across the nation in that the standards at high performing schools will be the same as those at low performing schools,” Ramey said. “These standards are far below the standards at many school districts, including mine. My biggest concern is what these standards have done to our math curriculum. They have dumbed down our math sequence by one and even two years.”
Other critics see Common Core the way they saw Outcome-Based Education two decades ago — as a way to dumb down standards so all students succeed in mediocrity.
“You cannot mandate that a child learn ‘fill in the blank,'” former gubernatorial candidate Peg Luksik of Johnstown said. “It is structurally impossible. You lower the bar so that the most people possible can achieve it.”
Gregory Wrightstone of Pennsylvanians Against Common Core said there is no evidence to justify a single standard for all students.
“A one size-fits-all model assumes that we already know the best standard for all students,” Wrightstone said. “It assumes that one best way for all students exists.”
Pennsylvania's assumption isn't quite the same as in other states, officials here say. Pa. educators adopted national Common Core standards in 2010.
When Corbett took office, Eller said the state education department and the Board of Education began a shift to Pennsylvania-specific standards, with national standards as a foundation.
“They are word for word the same, particularly in the area of English and language arts,” Luksik said.
In math, she said, there are differences in wording but “every national Common Core standard has a Pennsylvania match.”
Luksik, a mother of six and a former consultant to the U.S. Department of Education during President Ronald Reagan's administration, said there is a need for standards that don't lead to “cookie cutter” children, that use results of national achievement tests but leave decisions to local districts.
“My nuclear reactor-running son by the high school level needed to do different things from his ballerina sister,” Luksik said. “(Schools) should be able to adapt (standards) to what that child is good at (and) let them pursue their area of strength.”
Amid the debate, districts are preparing for Common Core.
“We've had curriculum teams getting together over the course of many years preparing our Standards Aligned curriculum, making a shift to the Common Core curriculum so that when we do have a program, it can help us,” McKeesport Area Superintendent Timothy Gabauer said in May.
At Steel Valley, instructional materials for the elementary “Reading Wonders” program were developed to be compatible with Common Core standards for reading and language arts.
In West Jefferson Hills, elementary schools will implement a new math series, “My Math,” by McGraw-Hill, to help align curriculum and teaching to Common Core.
Elizabeth Forward officials said district staff is reviewing and revising curriculum to bring it in line with state standards to be fully implemented in 2015-16.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association expressed concern that not enough time and money was being invested in the new standards.
“PSEA is not opposed to the implementation of the Pennsylvania Common Core, but teachers and students need time and resources to make it work,” Keever said.
The new standards apply in all 500 public school districts, even those in severe financial recovery.
“Duquesne is required to use the Pennsylvania Core Standards when designing and creating its curriculum,” Eller said. “Duquesne is still held to the same accountability measures under the No Child Left Behind waiver as other public schools. Its financial status is not relevant to these issues.”
The issue will be discussed at a Westmoreland County Republican Committee forum, “Common Core: The Curse or The Cure,” on Sept. 12 from 7-10 p.m. at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville.
Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1967, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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